11 Street Angel (1937) China YUAN Mu-Jih
Street Angel dramatizes good-hearted urban youths struggle to escape from their corrupt environment in the poorest district of Shanghai. The film opens with a comic marriage procession in which Chen Xiaoping plays trumpet for the band. Chen is in love with his neighbor, Hong, who fled from Manchuria with her sister, Yun, after the Japanese occupation. While Yun has been forced into prostitution, Hong travels around with her tutor singing songs. One day the tutor decides to sell Hong to a small-time gangster. Chen and his friends want to free her and decide to consult the lawyer Zhang. However, they soon discover that without money the law will not help the poor. Running away provides the only solution, and Hong does this with the help of Chen. They live together in another district of the city. Yun comes for a visit and dreams of starting a new life with Chen’s friend, Wang, but the evil tutor asks a gangster to track them down. Although Hong manages to escape Yun is stabbed by the two men. Friends gathered around Yun’s bedside can do nothing but watch her die. This story of solidarity, friendship, and love amongst the dregs of urban society has been interpreted in different ways. It is certainly a critique of Shanghai’s semi-colonialist society; it might have been inspired by Frank Borzage’s Street Angel (1928); it has even been described as a Chinese forerunner of Italian neorealism. A canonized leftist film, it combines Hollywood and Soviet film techniques with traditional Chinese narrative arts.
12 A Brighter Summer Day (1991) Taiwan Edward YANG
Edward Yang’s fifth picture is a novelistic exploration of the meanings and contradictions of Taiwanese cultural identity. Set in 1960, and based on a true incident weighing heavily on Yang’s own youth, the film — which, in its unedited form, clocks in at just under four hours — primarily focuses on the life of S’ir, a high school student whose civil servant father was among the millions of Chinese mainlanders who fled to Taipei in the wake of 1949’s civil uprisings. In the picture’s opening scenes, it is revealed that S’ir is teetering on the brink of academic expulsion; like so many of the film’s characters, he is clearly yearning for a stronger sense of belonging, and as a result joins a youth gang, much to the detriment of his life at home and at school. In time, he falls for Ming, a flirtatious girl with domestic troubles of her own; this ill-fated couple’s circle of friends also includes Honey, an exiled gang leader, Si’r’s best friend Xiao Ma, and Cat, a younger boy obsessed with Elvis Presley. (The lyrics to Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” phonetically transcribed by Si’r’s older sister, lend the film its title.)
13 The Private Eyes (1976) Hong Kong Michael HUI
Respect for people with connections in high places is so great in Chinese society that a simple newspaper photo of the head of the Manix Detective Agency shaking hands with an important government official is enough to win him scores of clients, though his track record is somewhat spotty. Despite this, he has enough work to consistently get into a lot of trouble in the most unexpected places (i.e., a supermarket). He has double the fun when he hires a young man who was fired from his job in a bottling factory for practicing kung fu on soda bottles.
14 The Mission (1999) Hong Kong Johnnie TO
Veteran Hong Kong director Johnnie To spins this wild, kinetic crime thriller. The film concerns an aging crime boss, Lung (Ko Hung), taking an assassin’s bullet. Though he survives, he instructs his henchman Frank (Simon Yam) to find the villain behind the plot. Frank soon hires a quintet of hired guns to guard the boss, including the laconic Curtis (Anthony Wong), the flinty Roy (Francis Ng) and his prot?g? Shin (Jackie Lui), the haggard Mike (Roy Cheung), and firearms expert and peanut enthusiast James (Lam Suet). The group manages to thwart three attempts on the old man’s life — one from a sniper, a second in a shopping mall, and the third in an old warehouse — until they figure out that rival crime boss Fat Chung (Wong Tin-lan) had order the hit. This film was screened at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival.
15 One Armed Swordsman (1967) Hong Kong CHANG Cheh
This breathtaking swordplay and kung-fu epic is notable for more than one reason. First off, it was one of the first big hits for director Chang Cheh and set the tone for the many kung-fu hits he would later direct. One Armed Swordsman remains a stunningly well-crafted piece of work thanks to his inspired direction: Cheh keeps the complexly plotted tale moving forward at a skillfully modulated pace, and in the process, delivers a collection of stunning action scenes that grow ever more complex in choreography and length. One Armed Swordsman is also notable for kick-starting the career of star Jimmy Wang Yu. As the film’s resourceful hero, Wang Yu exhibits the right combination of acting chops and machismo to create a protagonist who is just as compelling in the dramatic scenes as he is in the action sequences. The combination of a director and a star both delivering top-flight work helps make One Armed Swordsman a classic of its genre: its stylized look gives it the the feel of an adult fairy tale brought to life, Wang Yu’s performance keeps the viewer emotionally invested in the film’s unusual plot, and the sharply choreographed swordplay and martial arts scenes remain as exciting as ever. In short, One Armed Swordsman is well worth a look for anyone interested in classic kung-fu cinema and a must for students of the form.
16 Fist of Fury (1972) Hong Kong LO Wei
Prepare for the hardest hitting martial arts action since Bruce Lee as Donnie Yen reprises the role made famous by the tragic screen legend in this made-for-television effort inspired by Lee’s timeless classic Fist of Fury. As the dejected citizens of Shanghai cower in fear of the Japanese occupation, Chen Jun (Yen) joins the Jin Wu Martial Arts Academy in hopes of refining his skills and striking back at his oppressors through the formation of a well-organized underground resistance. When Chen’s master (Eddy Ko) is poisoned by the leaders of the Japanese occupation, the furious student puts his skills to the ultimate test by embarking on a skull-cracking revenge spree that will leave martial arts fans breathless
17 In the Heat of the Sun (1994) China JIANG Wen
This Chinese film which chronicles the rites-of-passage of a group of adolescent men is based on Wang Shuo’s 1991 novella and includes additional autobiographical anecdotes from writer/director Jiang Wen. The film is set in summertime Peking during the early ’70s. The boys live in a military school compound. When not skipping their classes, they are getting into fights with rival groups and girl watching. Much of the story focuses upon group leader Liu Yiku and Monkey Ma (who is based on Jiang Wen). Liu Yiku is having a sexual relationship with the free-wheeling Yu Beipei who is interested in Monkey Ma. Monkey Ma is too interested in the older gal, Mi Lan to notice.
18 In the Face of Demolition (1953) Hong Kong LI Tie
A striking and enjoyable film on the theme of the solidarity of the urban poor, Lee Tit’s “In the Face of Demolition” takes place mostly in an apartment building inhabited by people clutching at the lower rungs of the middle class: a nightclub taxi dancer, a teacher who is thrown out of work, a jobless draftsman who is reduced (to everyone’s unconcealed shock and dismay) to selling his blood. Characters are quickly and deftly characterized, with much humor, and the dominant tone is affectionate; but the film doesn’t shrink from establishing that the characters’ problems are linked to social conditions and to the greed and ruthlessness of landlords. The mise-en-sc?ne has a Renoirian flavor, and at certain points, the film clearly recalls “Le Crime de M. Lange”: like Renoir’s hero, the teacher hero of “In the Face of Demolition” is an aspiring writer who is promised the moon by a would-be publisher and gets let down badly.
19 A Chinese Odyssey (1995) Hong Kong Jeffrey LAU
The famous Chinese novel Xi You Ji (also known as Journey to the West) was the basis for Hong Kong filmmaker Jeff Lau’s flamboyant and rewarding two-part fantasy about the introduction of Buddhism to China. The film, gorgeous as it is, is primarily a parody of its source material, starring comedian Stephen Chiau as both Sun the Monkey King and his later incarnation, Joker. The story begins as the Goddess of Happiness banishes the Longevity Monk (Law Kar-ying) and his followers from Heaven because the Monkey King tried to eat the Monk and gain immortality. They are all sentenced to reincarnation as mortal humans, and the Monkey King becomes Joker 500 years later. Joker doesn’t know that he was once the Monkey King, and is preoccupied by his romances with two immortal females, Pak Jing-jing (Karen Mok) and the 30th Madam (Yammie Nam). Jing-jing had been rejected by the Monkey King centuries before, but falls for Joker only to get poisoned by her sister, who is extremely jealous and wants him for herself. Aware that Jing-jing may soon die, Joker uses the Pandora’s Box to travel back in time, but ends up lost in the world of 500 years earlier. Ng Man-tat co-stars with director Lau (as “the Grapes”) and Athena Chu Yan. The same year’s A Chinese Odyssey, Part Two — Cinderella continues the story.
20 The Arch (1970) Hong Kong TANG Shu-Shuen
The directorial debut of young Chinese director Shu Shuen, The Arch is the story of an 18th-century army captain and a lonesome young widow who meet when they reach for a cricket and their fingers touch. The woman is a schoolteacher, well respected by the village to the point that the town has commissioned an arch in honor of her chastity. The captain and the widow’s daughter meet, fall in love and marry, leaving the town to use money granted by the Emperor to build the arch in honor of the now-alone virtuous widow. This feature appeared at the 1968 San Francisco Film Festival where the touching love story was well received.